I once worked with an editor who would occasionally ask: “What’s the most interesting wine you tasted this week?” It was a way of teasing out a potential topic, a useful mental exercise. You’ll note she didn’t ask about the best wine, just the most interesting. That’s because she wisely knew a wine critic’s “best” would in all probability be so expensive as to be irrelevant to most budgets.
I go through this exercise most weeks and I must admit it’s usually hard to declare a winner. How do you define “interesting?” For my money, it could be a marvelously poised $31.95 Gigondas from the Rhône Valley that’s redolent of lavender and minerals, like the one below. Not cheap but pretty awesome. Or, if you’re a fan of dusty-dry red Bordeaux, it could be La Verrière, at $17.95, imbued with more structure and finesse than most merlots costing three times the money. Maybe it’s a rich-yet-impressively-balanced chardonnay from Niagara that blows away most Californians at its price. Or an offbeat Croatian red made from the plavac mali grape. Or an organic fiano from the outskirts of Naples, not far from Mount Vesuvius.
I’d say that last one comes close to the bottle I’m giving my nod today as Wine of the Week, both with respect to merit as well as geographical origin. Tornatore Etna Rosso 2014 comes from one of the most awesome vineyard sites (and sights) in the Mediterranean, the hardened-lava northern slopes of Mount Etna – Europe’s largest and most active volcano – on the sea’s largest island, Sicily.
It’s a blend of two local and distinctive red varieties, nerello mascalese and nerello cappuccio. Nerello mascalese is Etna’s star. It’s crisp (thanks in part to Etna’s high elevation) and firm, with a cherry-like flavour that’s more aromatic and persistent than one might expect from the wine’s moderate body and light hue. Think of delicate and perfumed pinot noir crossed with tannic and tart nebbiolo. Or think of the opposite of rich-and-smooth Argentine malbec. Nerello cappuccio, usually added in smaller quantities, tends to be softer, a good partner in the blend.
Tornatore Etna Rosso is not what I’d call a blockbuster. Some palates might find it downright jarring. But at least it’s not a merlot. Plus, it comes from a Sicilian volcano.
Muga Prado Enea Gran Reserva 2009, Spain
SCORE: 94 PRICE: $57.95
Built to last but drinking beautifully now, with classically evolved Rioja characters. Dried cherry, strawberry, tangy oak, cedar and tobacco. Fills the palate without crushing the tongue. Available in Ontario at the above price, $69.99 in British Columbia, various prices in Alberta.
Henry of Pelham Speck Family Reserve Chardonnay 2014, Ontario
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $29.95
Marvellous. Taste this Niagara offering next to almost any California chardonnay costing $30 or less – wait, make that $50 or less – and it’s obvious which is more complex and harmonious. Full-bodied and round, it’s full and ripe yet bright and crisp, with toasty depth and well-integrated oak. Available at Vintages stores in Ontario.
Le Plan des Moines Les Vendangeuses Gigondas 2013, France
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $31.95
Full but particularly elegant for big Gigondas. Perfectly ripe, with the full southern-Rhône parade on offer: lavender, white pepper, licorice and much else. Flowers and minerals, too! Gently sticky tannins. Available in Ontario.
Mitchell Watervale Riesling 2014, Australia
SCORE: 92 PRICE: $21.95
Fifty-year-old vines – that’s old for riesling. And if you favour Australia’s incomparably dry style, check out this beauty. One can sense the concentration of the old-vine fruit, redolent here of pear and lime. And be prepared for tangy spice and flowers. Available in Ontario at the above price, various prices in Alberta.
La Crema Sonoma Coast Pinot Noir 2014, California
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $29.95
Light-medium-bodied, creamy and open-armed. Jammy berries, caramel, tea and a big dusting of baking spices. A cuddly pinot. $33.99 in British Columbia (on sale for $32.49 until April 29), various prices in Alberta, $33.99 in Manitoba, $28.55 in Quebec, $44.99 in New Brunswick, $47.76 in Newfoundland, in Prince Edward Island the remaining stock of half bottles is on sale for $15.15 ($3.01 off the regular price).
Porconero Fiano 2015, Italy
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $16.95
Fetching modernist label design: a mostly black pig (porco nero in Italian) created with small circles or portions thereof. Fiano is a signature white of Campania, the southern region that encompasses Naples. The wine is organically grown, medium-bodied and silky, with excellent concentration showing succulent stone fruit. A refreshing alternative to chardonnay or pinot grigio. Give pigs a chance. Available in Ontario.
Château La Verrière 2014, France
SCORE: 91 PRICE: $17.95
Low on the Bordeaux-classification totem pole, this small property on the region’s eastern side is not exactly Mouton or Lafite. But I wonder if such esteemed properties could turn out a wine today of this calibre at this price. A blend of 85-per-cent merlot with 15-per-cent cabernet sauvignon, it’s mid-weight and bone dry, with a smooth merlot centre leading to a dry, tangy finish. Along the way: currant, smoke, woodsy forest and mint. Available in Ontario.
Tornatore Etna Rosso 2014, Italy
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $21.95
You won’t find this on the list at Milestones or any faux British pub. It’s a rarity from the slopes of Sicily’s Mount Etna volcano. In fact, it’s sadly available currently only through Vintages stores in Ontario. A blend of local varieties nerello mascalese and nerello cappuccio, it’s medium-full-bodied and tight with tannins as well as crisp acidity, with an aromatic cherry essence and hints of lavender, licorice and pepper.
Fort Berens Pinot Noir 2014, British Columbia
SCORE: 90 PRICE: $25.99
Light in body and colour. Jammy strawberry mixed with smoky asphalt and pepper. And earthy. Imagine the scent of a forest after a rain shower. Available direct through www.fortberens.ca.
Heartland Spice Trader Shiraz Cabernet Sauvignon 2014, Australia
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $16.95
A lively change-of-pace red from Australia. Red-fruit characters with a mint and pepper lift. Bright and tangy. Dusty tannins provide grip. Available in Ontario at the above price, $18.49 in British Columbia, $16.99 in Manitoba.
Frano Milos Plavac 2012, Croatia
SCORE: 89 PRICE: $20.95
A wild-fermented red made from the local plavac mali grape. Generous cherry fruit and woody depth along with a funky barnyard essence and sweet spices. Available in Ontario.
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